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How Emir foils cyber-dissidents

While the US government tries to find legal ways of preventing pornography in cyberspace, rulers of the Gulf emirate of Bahrain are playing a cat-and-mouse game on the Internet with dissidents who have been carrying out a campaign of mass protests and bombings for the past year-and-a-half, writes Stephanie Nolen.

The Internet is the only alternative source of information in Bahrain, where the Emir and his all-powerful family control the media. Watching their televisions or reading the government-published Gulf Daily News, residents of Bahrain have little idea that a civil uprising is going on. At least 10 people have been killed in the past three months by bombs in restaurants and hotels, but the official media give only a limited, muted picture of what they call "terrorist" disturbances.

But the Emir wasn't on-line - and so the Bahrain Freedom Movement, an underground organisation working for the reinstatement of the elected National Assembly suspended in 1975 after 18 months in office, had one place to advertise its cause: a World Wide Web home page packed with information of the type that never makes the Gulf Daily News.

About three months ago, however, somebody at the palace logged on. Subsequently, people living in Bahrain who tried to click into the Freedom Movement home page received a polite message telling them their server denied them access to that address. A month later, the Freedom Movement page reappeared, with a new address on Compuserve. After six weeks, though, the government found that address and blocked it as well.

The software used by the Emir is believed to be the same as that employed by parents to prevent their children accessing certain addresses on the Internet - any containing the word "sex", for example. Net-surfers in Bahrain could log on to servers outside the region and access the Freedom Movement site that way, but the telephone bills would become prohibitive.

Bahrain connected to the Internet in October 1995. Batelco, the only server for the country, channels all information coming into Bahrain through a central feed, and the addresses of any news groups which might carry information hostile to the ruling family are targeted and blocked. "There is a 'denied list'," explained Nabil Hussein, who works in product development at Batelco. "We decide which sites are on the list. They are sites we don't like our users to access."

The denied list includes material of a sexually-explicit nature and political information, Mr Hussein confirmed. "Our network is secure to keep out bad things," he said, obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Batelco drew up the list. Did the government suggest anything? "There are a lot of issues here and I cannot go into details," he said.

While the popularity of the Internet is still fairly limited in Bahrain, the core of support for the Freedom Movement is believed to be university students, who had access to the Internet and the movement's home page through their libraries.

Janet Martin, a Canadian teacher living in Bahrain, was among those who visited the Freedom Movement page regularly. "As expats, we used the site for supplementary information," she said. "The Gulf Daily News is propaganda. We didn't necessarily believe everything on the Freedom Movement page either, but we were getting a balance.

Ms Martin said the home pagehelped her judge the political climate in her neighbourhood better than a walk outside. She predicted that Bahrain's dissidents would soon have another address: "It's a game of hide-and- seek, except that the time the page takes to appear here will get shorter as Batelco gets better at finding their address."